Gentry Creek is an alluring stream. Photo/Johnny Molloy
Gentry Creek Falls is located up in Johnson County. It is one of the lesser-visited yet most scenic cataracts in our Tennessee mountain lands. The hike to it takes you through a remote valley of the Cherokee National Forest to the 60-foot double-decker falls. From the trailhead, walk a wildflower-filled, rocky vale bordered by high ridges. It takes 13 stream crossings to make Gentry Falls. However, at low-to-normal water flows you will be able to dry foot it over stones set at the crossings. At Gentry Creek Falls, view a two-tiered cataract tumbling over rock bluffs, spilling into a sea of rhododendron, in the depths of a northern hardwood forest.
This is a great three-season hike. The plethora of fords makes it an unlikely winter proposition. Of course, I did not follow my own advice and went during winter — the water was up and Gentry Creek Falls can be a real showstopper when its flow is in a dander. Of course that means wet feet — or taking your shoes off and on at every ford, which I did, no easy feat with a fully loaded pack on your back. Before leaving home, I imagined seeing the mighty rumbler flowing off the cliff and myself sitting before a toasty fire at day’s end, not the shoe changing at every ford part of the hike.
Be apprised no matter the season, when Gentry Creek is high the falls will be bold, but you will also get your feet wet — the ol’ Catch-22 of waterfall hiking. Consider that when timing your trek.
At the trailhead, with Gentry Creek to your left, you will see two trails heading north. Take the path on the left, the Gentry Creek Trail. The other path is an unmaintained trail heading up Cut Laurel Branch. Once on the Gentry Creek Trail, you will shortly step over Cut Laurel Branch.
The forest rises thick overhead with black birch, yellow birch and oaks. White pines sway in the wind. Rhododendron thickens the moist margins. Note the treated hemlocks. The valley is wide here. Saddle alongside fast-moving Gentry Creek, where rainbow trout reproduce.
The paint-blazed trail leads you to the first creek crossing at .5 mile. This is where the rubber met the road and I saw the high creek was not “rock-hop-able,” if that is a word. Therefore, I took my shoes off for the first of 13 times, walked through the fast and icy water, dried my feet off, then reshod across the stream — on a 40-degree gray day.
The aforementioned stepping stones make crossings easy and often dry at low to normal water levels. Gentry Creek was high and fast today. Join the left-hand bank. A steep, stony hill rises to your left and the balance of the valley extends to your right. Watch for fractured rock bluffs rising in the forest slopes.
At .8 mile, Kates Branch comes in on your right, draining the high country delineating Tennessee and North Carolina. Gentry Creek valley narrows, cut by a now-smaller creek. Cross to the right hand back just ahead. Crossing #3 comes at 1.0 mile. The valley tightens still. The rhododendron thickens. The trail rises. Crossing #4 comes at 1.4 miles. The fords come fast and furious after 1.5 miles. There used to be bridges on some of them, but they were burned by the U.S. Forest Service. The bridges were built by locals and not up to Forest Service standards, I heard.
From this point, the bordering ridges rise sharp, forcing the path to crisscross Gentry Creek in order to stay on passably flat ground. The stream gradient increases. Shoals and cascades are the result. After ford #11, at 1.8 miles, enter a flat of sorts and a campsite.
This is where I threw my pack down, and continued on to the falls, determined to get a picture, despite the waning winter light. Look for old logging roadbeds spurring off the flat. Make crossing #12 at the flat’s end. You are on the right hand bank. Here, an old trail goes straight for more crossings. However, the official blazed trail rises right and works to avoid at least two creek crossings, though it does traverse some mucky ground.
Continue climbing the increasingly sharp-sided valley. At 2.4 miles, shortly before reaching Gentry Creek Falls, make your final creek crossing, #13. You are on the left hand bank. The trail rises and becomes extremely rocky. Watch your footing among the sharp irregular stones.
Just ahead, Gentry Creek Falls opens before you. Here, the cataract drops in two 30-foot increments over fractured rock bluffs. A pool separates the two falls. Greenery overhangs the drops. It is easy to reach the lower falls and pool, but reaching the second one is tough.
Off-trail hikers will sometimes climb above the falls (on the right side) then work their way onto Rogers Ridge, west of Gentry Creek, heading for the balds up there and return via Rogers Ridge Horse Trail. Take note that off-trail hiking above the falls can be very challenging and linking to the Rogers Ridge Horse Trail is not easy.
Luckily, I brought the tripod to snap some pictures. The walk back to camp was tough in the dim dusk. Upon reaching camp, I immediately grabbed a light and retrieved ample, yet snow-sodden wood, then scrounged up a fire. It was a good while before that damp wood put out more heat than smoke, but persistence paid once again. Later that evening I was relaxing before the toasty conflagration, just as I had envisioned. A cold starry night followed. Patches of snow on the ground made the woods seem inordinately bright.
Next morning, after some piping hot java, I broke camp and backtracked to the trailhead, making the crossings once again, though they were a bit easier since the creek had receded overnight.
To reach Gentry Creek Falls trailhead from the intersection of U.S. 19E and U.S. 321 in Hampton, Tennessee, take TN 67 east 28 miles to Mountain City. In Mountain City, turn left on U.S. 421 north for .5 mile, then turn right on TN 91 north. Follow TN 91 north for 6.6 miles to Laurel Bloomery, TN and turn right on Gentry Creek Road (the turn is just before reaching the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department). Follow Gentry Creek Road for .7 mile, then come to a four-way intersection. Stay right here, still with Gentry Creek Road. Enter the national forest after one more mile. It becomes Forest Road 122. The road turns to gravel, and you pass Rogers Ridge Horse Trail in .3 mile on your left. Stay right with Forest Road 122 on a potholed track unsuitable for low clearance vehicles. Drive another mile on FR 122 to dead end at the trailhead. Alternate directions: From Bristol, take I-81 to exit 19 and then follow U.S. 58 east to Damascus, then head south on TN 91 toward Mountain City to reach Laurel Bloomery and Gentry Creek Road.